There isn’t much I want to remember about the month of February. It was the month of scary unknowns. Was it lymphoma or something even more sinister? Was it going to be in my bones? What would they stage me? What if it was everywhere? What if it was a type they couldn’t treat? I just want to be here for my boys; what will this mean for my life? The onslaught of questions, tests, scans and biopsies, and the waiting… the waiting… and waiting after a diagnosis was one of the hardest parts. I’m sure you can imagine all that to some degree. But, there is one piece of February that I do want to share on this blog. I’m not sharing this memory because it’s an easy one, on the contrary, it was one of the more emotionally raw experiences for me, so prepare yourself before you forge ahead. I feel as though I’m ready to release it into the universe.
It’s no secret that Nick and I were not done having kids. I chattered about when we would have a third since the day I brought my second home from the hospital. I was excitedly exclaiming,“hopefully we’ll all be doing this again soon,” when my doula came to check on me a couple days postpartum (I told you I was on a birth high for days). We have been blessed with two beautiful and healthy boys, whom we love dearly, and I was excited to try swaying for a girl this next time… just because, why not? It had worked for people I knew, most recently for my sister, and it would be exciting to have the experience of raising sons and a daughter. If it didn’t work, we wanted three kids anyway, and I would reign as queen of the house, a boy mom. I love the mother-son bond so much, my boys are the most fiercely loving little humans I’ve ever known; they are cuddly and sweet…and I love seeing their different personalities develop. I’m looking forward to all of the adventures we’ll have together. And I know, I’d love the mother-daughter bond just as much. My sister and I had been pregnant together for both of our boys, her oldest is 3.5 months older than my oldest, and her middle child is four months older than my second; she was due with her third (a little girl) February 7th. We had dreamed of our third children together much like we had the first two. I had my sway plan all set, and Nick and I were getting ready to try for baby numero tres soon…like very soon. There was just that nagging still in the back of my mind that I didn’t feel right, so I just needed to bug my doctor one more time so I could feel better first, because I didn’t want to start a pregnancy that way; little did I know, it wasn’t going to be an easy fix.
Finding out you have cancer when you’re still planning a family throws another whole dynamic into the fire storm. It feels, at first, like your whole world is unraveling before you, and you have very little time to make critical and decisive decisions. Because on top of trying to make choices regarding your own life and survival, you’re also trying to preserve some piece or parts or all of the dreams you and your spouse have shared and the life you imagined together. Plus, there’s the whole veil of the unknown clouding the ease in which you can make these timely decisions.
Regarding fertility, I had a few options: I could be done having children; I could freeze my eggs in advance of treatment to be used by me or a surrogate using IVF; or according to my oncologist, the chemotherapy I was on was only going to stun my fertility not render me infertile, so I could still potentially get pregnant again naturally. At the time of these choices, I did not know if it would even be safe for me to be pregnant again at all.
At a Friday doctors appointment to discuss my PET scan results, the oncologist told me that she didn’t think there would be enough time for me to freeze eggs unless they could “do it next week.” I would have a bone marrow and core biopsy of the largest lymph node that following week, a second opinion appointment at Sloan Kettering, and then she wanted to start treatment soon after. The next day, I just so happened to be on cycle day one; and Monday, I phoned a local fertility center to inquire about the process of egg harvesting. I did not want to have any doors closed for me; I needed to be the one to do it.
After being fortunate enough to get pregnant relatively easily two times, and having two uncomplicated and successful pregnancies, I never imagined I would be sitting in a fertility center. I looked around at other couples who were waiting there hoping for a chance to have a baby at all, and I already had two. They had come into my life rather easily. Despite sitting there with cancer raging in my abdominal lymph nodes, I felt… lucky. I scrolled through my phone at pictures of the two boys I love with every fiber of my being, who make my life worth living every single day, and part of me almost felt silly for being there, because I was so, very fortunate. It’s funny how your perspective can shift and re-shift and shift again like a kaleidoscope turning in your mind.
I had an ultrasound, some bloodwork, and was scheduled for a consult with a fertility doctor. During the in-between, I talked to one of my friends who had gone through this process, and she gave me helpful insights of what it was like from the patient perspective. I also wanted to know the risks, and started googling a little (even though that’s never a good idea!). Although, having cancer at a young age will make you hesitate a little on statistics, even low ones. Nick and I started looking into adoption and what that would be like as a way to grow our family — two of my cousins are adopted and my maternal grandmother was adopted — they are family, born into our hearts just as immediately and naturally as if they had been blood born from the womb. The idea of growing our family this way became a revitalized topic, as we had discussed fostering before, but now there was some energy behind it. It also gave me something positive and exciting to google, to look forward to in the future and my life post-lymphoma. I was relieved to be looking at options, because being done didn’t feel right.
The fertility doctor was nice, relaxed, and gave me a lot of hope. He talked to me about the optimistic results of my ultrasound and blood test. At first, I was excited, because everything was falling into place — in a time order that only seemed possible through the grace of God. I was in the right time in my cycle, everything looked good, I didn’t have any current fertility issues (just the assumed future ones), and they could do the egg retrieval in the local office before treatment started — before I would even have my second opinion appointment with Sloan. Then he started getting into what I would need to do to prep for the egg retrieval… all of the injections an inch around my naval, the hormones that were in the shots — the hormones to suppress ovulating prematurely, the trigger shot to stimulate ovulation at the optimal time, and going under and the invasive procedure to actually get the eggs — hopefully a lot of them, because more than one round would’ve been ideal, but not possible in my limited time frame! We learned that freezing embryos would be more effective than freezing eggs, because they had a better chance for survival. I didn’t know how I felt about that. If we had no children, this would have appealed to me, but we really only wanted one maybe two more. I didn’t know if I could have unused embryos left behind in the end. I also started thinking about the likelihood I would be able to use these eggs. At the time, I wasn’t sure how safe it would be for me to get pregnant and carry a baby for forty weeks. Would we really spend nearly 100K to hire a surrogate if I couldn’t? And then would I have gone through this whole thing for nothing? All of that information and these thoughts coupled with the two biopsies I had to go under sedation for that same week started to make me hesitate. The lymph node they were biopsying was only a couple inches from my belly button, and I wondered how this would interfere with the fertility injections (as it turned out I was allergic to the choloroprep they used in the biopsy and ended up with a nasty, itchy rash that went four inches around my naval in all directions). Panic built inside me. I didn’t want to be the one to decide we may never have another biological child. But, I started getting this feeling like I had wished I was further in my cycle, so I wouldn’t have to make the choice… and that’s when I knew it wasn’t the right one.
I wanted to sleep on it, because I didn’t know what to do. It felt fortuitous that everything was practically falling into my lap, but I didn’t think I could go through with the egg retrieval. I kept going back and forth. Part of me was concerned I was making this choice out of fear. I looked at my boys and how they resemble my husband and I in such drastically different ways; I wondered if a third child would’ve married their differences. I felt like I was letting go of the dream of this third little person, another beautiful combination of me and my husband — and the pain in my heart, in my soul was excruciating. Somehow at some point in the night something in me shifted, and I realized I needed to preserve myself for the two boys whose eyes giggled when they looked at me, for the two little humans I already created, love and care for. If more children were in my future great! But, these guys were in my present… and I needed to be there for them. I needed to heal myself.
I told the fertility doctor that I would call that next morning if I had second thoughts, or would come in to collect the hormone shots and materials I would need to start the process. I needed to move right away on this, because time was already ticking… At this point, I was on cycle day five and couldn’t delay. Right at eight am on February 20th, I phoned the center to tell them we weren’t moving forward. This was the right choice for us, I knew it was, but when I hung up the phone the weight of the loss was nearly crippling. I had to say goodbye to my pre-treatment eggs — the fertility in myself that had brought me two healthy babies. From here, the future was a great, big unknown.
Meanwhile, half a country away, my sister, Rachael was one day shy of two weeks late with her third pregnancy. She had been due just two days after I found out for sure it was lymphoma. Part of us wondered if she was so late because of the stress of this news. Several weeks later, she confided in me that she had felt guilty; here she was pregnant with a little girl like we both had dreamed, and I was facing cancer — as though she had been dealt this amazing hand, and I had been dealt a really shitty one, and she just really wanted us both to have a great hand. At this point, she needed to focus on having the baby. She had been trying everything to get this little girl to come into the world, so she could still deliver her in the natural way she had planned at the birthing center. My mom had been with her for sixteen days helping with her other two, while my dad stayed behind to help me. Rachael went into the birthing center, the morning of the 20th, to start her second “boot camp” day. If nothing progressed, the next day would mean induction. In the early parts of the afternoon, we received word that things were picking up. They were going to break her water, and little baby girl would hopefully engage from there. Fifteen hundred miles away, I felt so very far. We were supposed to be there, a trip we had to cancel nearly a month prior when the follow-up imaging revealed I needed a biopsy. I could’ve been with my sister in some of these moments.
We put the boys to bed, and soon after received word that she was entering transition. The baby would be here soon. Less than twelve hours before, I had said no to the fertility clinic. I called my mom and cried. I’m ashamed to admit it. The vortex of emotions swirling inside me was uncontrollable. All at once, at the same time, I was both elated for my sister and crushed for myself. I felt guilty for crying to my mom. Guilty like I was robbing her of this extremely joyous moment — her second granddaughter being born, likely my sister’s last child — and here I was feeling horribly sorry for myself. I felt angry at myself for taking this moment away from me too. When my other three nephews and niece were born, I was over the moon; I couldn’t sleep from excitement. This was likely my last niece or nephew, I wanted to be in the moment to savor it like I had four times before… but I couldn’t muster up the strength to do it.
When the picture finally came through of this newly born little baby clinging to my sister’s chest, I was in awe of my sister that she had delivered in this perfect way yet again and already totally in love with my newest niece. I was giddy and smiling, and then crying again. The raw and beautiful memory of the birth of my second child clung to the edges of my consciousness — I wondered would I ever again bring my freshly born child to my chest? Was that the last time my baby would breathe me in and know I was his or her mommy and that I loved them, all at once, a half a heart beat after their first breath.
I felt life. The newness of this sweet little girl into our amazing and wonderful family. She was the sun in the midst of some very dark days. But, I also felt loss. Loss of my perfect fertility. And a loss of sameness. My sister and I had shared two pregnancies together; we had two boys four months apart twice… we had shared this commonality for four years, and I loved it. It brought us even closer together if that was at all possible. In that moment, on that night, I felt like our roads diverged a little. We were no longer the same. We wouldn’t be able to completely and wholly relate to one another like we did before. And this made me ache somewhere deep inside.
Six weeks later, I still have tears in my eyes as I write this. Though I am in a much better place about it all, the feelings are still raw — fresh.
That I passed on freezing my eggs — a way of preserving my fertility — on the same day my sister gave birth to her third child, felt terribly ironic to me. Had all of these things not converged on the same day, my feelings may not have been so wild and unfiltered. I may have had time to process the decisions and changes. I may have been in the moment more on that night, more excited like I am now. Or maybe it was supposed to happen like it did. Maybe it was part of my own spiritual and emotional growth and maturing.
Less than two weeks later, I went to Sloan for a second opinion on the treatment plan. While there, I explained to the doctor that this was one of the hardest parts for me — that we weren’t ready to be done having children. She said very matter-of-fact, “then don’t be.” The chemotherapy would be out of my system in six months and wouldn’t make me infertile. My doctor here told me to wait two years. After researching, it is likely because this is the time the cancer is most likely to return if it hasn’t gone into a deep remission. I wanted to know the risks though. Based on what they told me, it doesn’t seem as though I’d be at risk for the lymphoma returning just because I get pregnant again. I bluntly asked if I would ever be in a position where I would have to choose between me or my baby, or that they would just maintain my life through the pregnancy and was relieved when she told me no. That I had it through certainly one, likely both of my pregnancies without killing me or rapidly advancing should make me feel relieved, I guess. I feel as though having a third is more of an option for us now, especially since I have been feeling more energetic as the treatments have begun to relieve the lymphoma symptoms. There is still a huge unknown — while they told me the treatment wouldn’t cause me to be infertile, I don’t know what effect having the chemotherapy in my body will have on my ability to get pregnant or on my eggs — if there are higher risks of the baby not being healthy. These are things I will have to look into in the two year wait once I’m in remission.
If I never get to have that baby girl, I know I have two amazing nieces who can fill part of that gap for me. My brother’s daughter is like a fraternal twin to my oldest — a beautiful, smart, fiery little spirit whose smile lights up the room! When we FaceTime, I love seeing her sweet and sassy personality. And my newest, sweet little gal, you’re still tiny… but you’ve already saved me more than you know.
For now, I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my two handsome little boys who are both at an age where we can go on really awesome adventures. And who knows, in two years, we may feel very different about all of this!
I am going to meet my newest little niece next month, and I can’t wait!
“Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright”…